After a major earthquake caused massive destruction and loss of life on the island of Java in 2006, Indonesian artist Arahmaiani was inspired to work with local students to determine what their community needed most to carry on in the face of environmental disaster.
The students arrived on concepts of “intellect” and “courage,” words which were sewn onto brightly colored flags. Arahmaiani’s project has since grown into a global initiative with communities from Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, China, Tibet, Germany and Belgium working with the artist to identify environmental problems in their region, think through solutions, and select keywords for new flags.
The participatory “Flag Project” is among the works of 18 international artists and collectives featured in the touring exhibition, “Actions for the Earth: Art, Care and Ecology,” on view at The Block Museum of Art from Jan. 26 to July 7.
Presented in collaboration with Independent Curators International (ICI), “Actions for the Earth” underscores artistic approaches that address the worldwide climate crisis while offering opportunities to reflect, respond and care for local environments.
“The Block is pleased to present ‘Actions for the Earth,’ an exhibition that brings a global context into ongoing conversations around the impact of climate change on us individually and in our global community,” said Lisa Corrin, The Block’s Ellen Philips Katz Executive Director.
“We believe artists can play an important role in helping us understand what it means to live within the impact of environmental change and in visualizing how the climate crisis intersects with our lives, including the eco-anxiety afflicting so many of us.
“Through our existing work with Climate Crisis + Media Arts and the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, The Block has been engaging with the way that art can raise and reframe urgent issues around care and climate,” Corrin said.
Wood drew inspiration for the show from the way the global health crisis during the pandemic became inseparable from rising awareness of climate change and entrenched social inequity.
“I think artists have an important role in promoting imagination and creativity as a way to solve some of the problems that we face, not only for the Earth but also within our own lives as well,” Wood said. “I hope that the artists in the exhibition provide insight for people in terms of how we can reimagine ourselves and the world that we live in.” Watch the "Actions for the Earth" video introduction.
Art and action
“Actions for the Earth” presents work by artists and collectives who emphasize reciprocity and restorative healing practices. Work in the exhibition foregrounds the value of holding a global perspective while focusing locally and highlighting interconnections by drawing from multiple disciplines beyond established art practices.
Artists include: Ackroyd and Harvey, Lhola Amira, Arahmaiani, Sayan Chanda, Hylozoic/Desires (Himali Singh Soin and David Soin Tappeser), lololol, Ana Mendieta, Zarina Muhammad, Patrina Mununggurr, Pauline Oliveros, Yoko Ono, Eric-Paul Riege, Tabita Rezaire, Cecilia Vicuña, Katie West and Zheng Bo.
The exhibition includes sculpture, photography, video and digital media works as well as participatory installations and collaboratively tended artworks that create space for honoring ancestors, recognizing the significance of Indigenous knowledge, and engaging in fantastical speculation and creative imagination.
- “Clearing” (2019) by Katie West (Yindjibarndi and Australian, b. 1988). The installation invites the audience to rest beneath a canopy of naturally dyed textiles. The earthen colored draped silks are memories of a landscape that is further recalled by the meditative soundscape of poetry and sounds recorded on the land.
- “Calendrical Systems for the Afterlife” (2002) by Zarina Muhammad (Singaporean b. 1982). Seeking to create a refuge in the turbulence of our world, the installation invites visitors to reflect and participate by adding a note or object that represents shelter, safety and sanctuary.
- “Memory of Nature” by Arahmaiani (2013). A garden bed mirroring a mandala design explores the link between nature and religion. The installation, which changes every time it is presented, will begin to grow outside The Block Museum in mid-April with native flowers selected by anthropologist Eli Suzukovich III, a lecturer in Northwestern’s Program in Environmental Policy and Culture and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR), and his students.
“‘Actions for the Earth’ is a resource for current times, reminding us that we are connected within a constellation of living networks, inseparable from the Earth,” Wood said. “If we have a more caring approach to each other, it can affect us socially, economically and politically. It can be endlessly expansive.”
Though international in scope, “Actions for the Earth” spotlights local issues when addressing ecology and climate change.
“The Chicago region has a long history of socially engaged, ecologically attuned art practice,” said consulting curator Smith, curator of the landmark touring exhibition “Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art,” also organized by Independent Curators International.
“‘Actions for the Earth’ will resonate with past and current work in our region. It brings a rich mix of international and intergenerational perspectives to the shared, urgent work of taking better care of each other and the planet,” Smith said.
The Block will host an opening conversation at 2 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 3.
Following welcome remarks by Northwestern President Michael H. Schill, consulting curator Smith will moderate a conversation between artists and researchers focused on art, eco-anxiety and resilience and climate science, as well as the importance of cross-disciplinary thinking and problem-solving to effect change.
Participants include Dekila Chungyalpa, director of the Loka Initiative, Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Teresa Montoya, artist and assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Chicago; and Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, associate professor in the department of political science, and a faculty affiliate with the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research and a faculty fellow with the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs at Northwestern.
“Actions for the Earth: Art, Care and Ecology” is curated by Sharmila Wood and produced by Independent Curators International (ICI), New York. Lead funding is provided by the Hartfield Foundation and also made possible with the generous support of ICI’s Board of Trustees and International Forum. The Block’s presentation of this exhibition is supported in part by the Illinois Arts Council Agency, the Bernstein Family Contemporary Art Fund, the Dorothy J. Speidel Gift and the Alsdorf Gallery at The Block Museum Endowment.
Lindsay Bosch is associate director of communications, marketing and digital strategy at The Block Museum of Art.